Vegan at College 101
Tips from People Who Know
By Jessica Friend and Lindsey Siferd
The Vegetarian Resource Group has compiled a list of tips to help you survive (and thrive!) as a vegan college student. We interviewed thirteen current students at various universities around the country about their experiences as being vegan at college. They are a diverse group of students– some go to large universities and some are at small colleges. Some have been vegan since birth, some started more recently. A few are even leaders of vegetarian and/or animal rights groups, but all are activists in some way. They all had advice to share for incoming and current students who wish to live a vegan lifestyle at school.
First Step- Do Your Research
Deciding which colleges to apply to can be a tough decision for anyone, and as a vegan student, it’s especially important to do thorough research. Many students will be living on their own for the first time, and it’s important to know what each college does to ease that transition. Tailor your search to include the criteria most important to you and remember to investigate the dining options thoroughly. Will you be allowed to bring a fridge or microwave? Are freshman required to purchase a meal plan? Which halls, if any, have communal kitchens? Most schools offer sample menus on their websites but you can also contact dining services for more information. You may also want to find out if the school has a co-op or a veg-friendly club.
You can check out our article on vegan-friendly colleges in the Maryland area to get a feel for some of the options that different schools offers. US News and World Report has also compiled a list of eight vegetarian-friendly schools around the country, which is a good place to start.
Why become vegan?
Whether or not they had been vegan since childhood, or only became vegan in more recent years, all of the students were concerned with human or animal rights, and many wanted to reduce environmental impact as well.
Claire Askew, a junior at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, OR and a former VRG scholarship winner, said that she became a vegan because she was against oppression of any kind. Askew said, "After a few months of being vegetarian, I stumbled across some information about how dairy cows and egg-laying hens are treated. I was shocked that they live in the same conditions as animals raised for meat, and even more so to learn that they do get killed for meat in the end. In short, I realized that by continuing to buy dairy and eggs I was continuing to support factory farming, and that wasn’t being true to the ethical beliefs that got me to go vegetarian in the first place."
Several of the students saw veganism as a way to take action, and a way to challenge the ethical dilemmas they saw posed by a meat-eating lifestyle.
Sarah Alper, a sophomore at Smith College in Northampton, MA, said, "Since I was brought up in a vegan household, I didn’t really decide to become vegan, but I’ve stayed vegan for ethical reasons–it’s better for animals and for the environment, and it’s a pretty simple way to put some of my values (compassion and responsibility, for example) into action on a daily basis."
Nina Gonzalez, at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, PA, and another former VRG scholarship winner, responded similarly to Sarah in terms of veganism as being an active choice. She said that in high school she realized that she could make an impact by adopting a cruelty-free lifestyle. "Four to five times a day I could make a choice," said Gonzales.
University of MD Baltimore County (UMBC) junior Yasmin Radbod and Eastern Illinois University grad student Mekenzie Lewis also extolled the health and environmental reasons for veganism. Radbod, who is the president of her school’s vegetarian and vegan club, UMBCVeg, said, "The environment was my original reason. Afterwards, I became involved in all aspects of veganism: personal health benefits, animal activism, and the environment. I call it the ‘three-pronged approach.’"
Lewis stated similar reasons; "I had been vegetarian for a year and had been reading up on benefits for the environment and for health it just seemed like a worthwhile challenge I wanted to accept.and it stuck!"
For students who adopt a vegan lifestyle, Alper suggested thinking a lot about your own personal motivations, and being prepared to answer questions from others. She said, "You’ll meet a lot of people who may be interested in vegetarianism and veganism. Many college students are exploring different lifestyles and you can promote vegetarianism and/or veganism by being an approachable and knowledgeable resource."
Butte Community College student Emily Maybee echoed Alper and the other students’ statements on impact; "Remember that regardless what anyone says, you do make a difference. It may seem small but think of all the people you are setting an example for in your life including your friends and your family. It is possible to influence people for the better and towards a more compassionate world."
For many of our vegan students, maintaining their lifestyle at college meant getting to know the chefs at the dining hall at their schools. Making these connections can often help greatly increase the quality and options of the vegan food on campus.
When you first arrive on campus, check out the dining hall. Are there vegan options beyond a salad bar? Is the vegan and vegetarian food labeled? Are there different utensils for meat and non-meat options? If you are unsatisfied with what is available, talk to the chefs or head of dining services.
"Don’t be afraid to complain to your university about your dining options. Actually, ‘complain’ makes it sound like it’s a bad thing. It’s not! My first semester of college I was so disappointed with their vegan options that I called the head chef of our dining hall. For that entire year, I met with the head chef and other associates about creating better options. And it worked," Radbod says of her experience.
Students can also be creative in their approaches to making change in the dining hall a reality. Gonzalez ordered vegan cookbooks online and has plans to pass them onto the chefs at school so that "both vegan, and healthier, more diverse options can make their way into the dining hall." She also made a point to meet the head of her school’s food services during freshmen orientation. This early effort lead to a positive relationship, allowing Gonzalez to get Tofurky served at Seton Hill’s Thanksgiving dinner.
New York University sophomore Danny Neilson lives a raw food vegan lifestyle, so he has worked out a unique deal with the NYU dining hall. Dining services staff cut out some of Neilson’s meals in the dining hall, and in exchange gave him money to use at certain local health food stores. Solutions such as these show that most universities are willing to be flexible to accommodate their students.
If all else fails, Maybee offers this simple advice, "Ask! Ask your dining hall manager what options they have. If you don’t like something, speak up…[as] you are the one paying for your food you should have a say."
Many students, such as UMBCEats blogger Stefanie Mavronis, find that getting directly involved on campus is a rewarding experience. It can help you share your experience as a vegan student, Mavronis says, and make a tangible change for current and future students.
University of California San Diego student Alisha Utter started a group on campus called P.E.A.C.E. (People for the Elimination of Animal Cruelty through Education). She says, " Whether a curious carnivore or veteran vegan, I recommend all students embrace college as an opportunity to explore themselves and challenge the misconceptions and assumptions that they may carry… As a generation, we have the ability to improve the welfare of others, beginning with those without a voice."
Find Other Veg Students
College is where diverse groups of individuals come together, making it the perfect time and place to find people who share common interests and goals. For vegan and vegetarian students especially, a good support system is key to maintaining their lifestyle.
A great way to find other veg students is to join a club. You can check your colleges list of student-run organizations for veg-friendly clubs. Once you’ve checked the list and found a club you like, join it! If there isn’t a veg-friendly club at your college or university you can start one of your own. Rachel Horner used the website Meetup to network with other vegans in her area to find out about upcoming potlucks, outreach events, and trips to animal sanctuaries. Her friends eventually helped her to organize an activist group at Towson University, Towson University Advocates For Animals and the Environment.
Finding other vegan or vegetarian students in your college community can also be a great way to network or get involved. Many college students use their schools veg-friendly club to advocate for better dining options. Think strength in numbers. Jennie Plasterer organized vegan potluck dinners with her school’s vegetarian and vegan club, VegIU; Alisha Utter advocated for Tofutti ice cream in her campus market with UCSD’s P.E.A.C.E. club.
In your attempt to avoid culinary boredom in college, it helps to keep an open mind. A little creativity can and will go a long way.
Try mixing and matching items from different food stations, augmenting food from the dining hall with items from co-ops or grocery stores and trying items that you’ve never tasted before. A seemingly "odd" combination could become your favorite dish. University of Chicago student Elizabeth Brehrens suggests bringing items from the salad bar to the sandwich or pasta station; fresh spinach or cherry tomatoes can be great in a wrap or with noodles. When Sarah Alper began school at Smith College, she tried a bunch of dishes she admits she would have never touched at home. Says Alper, "I enjoyed some of them, and became a much less picky eater in the process!"
When you do find something that works for you, as Mekenzie Lewis said "eat a lot of it!" Lewis suggests making slight variations on old favorites, such as trying different flavors of hummus with standard veggies. Taking a familiar dish and choosing a different grain or protein is not only healthier, it’s more exciting and doesn’t require a lot of effort.
If you’re lucky enough to have access to a kitchen, use it! You can adapt recipes from your favorite vegan cookbook to fit your college lifestyle. PETA has an agenda book with tons of dorm friendly vegan recipes you can make; it was a favorite of Indiana University student and VegIU president Jennie Plasterer. UMBC’s Yasmin Radbod used to prepare vegan cookies or muffins from her favorite cookbook in her dorm halls communal kitchen. She even let her fellow students serve as taste testers!
Easy Food Options
The students had variety of suggestions for easy food for hungry vegan students on a limited budget.
For students who might be living in a dorm, check out your communal kitchen. If access is limited, there are still some easy vegan foods that you can store in your dorm room. Rachel Horner suggests that it is a good idea to stock up on foods that don’t require cooking, such as pita chips, hummus, and fruit. Some other easy snack ideas include granola mix, bagels, peanut butter, and dried fruits.
Many of the students suggest investing in a small refrigerator for your dorm room. This can allow you to keep more foods in stock. Stefanie Mavronis says, "The best thing that I can suggest is keeping big amounts of things that can keep and that you can eat throughout the week. Lentils with good spices, greens like kale, and stews with lots of beans and vegetables are my favorites."
If you do have access to a microwave, Nina Gonzalez suggests keeping microwavable foods handy. She suggests Annie Chun’s miso soup, calling it "high class ramen." Sarah Alper suggests instant oatmeal, to which a variety of toppings can be added.
If you live in an apartment, either on or off-campus, there are several options for cheap and easy food. Many students prefer making pasta of some kind. Claire Askew and Yasmin Radbod say that spaghetti is easy to make, and Sasha Clark suggests using whole-grain pasta as much as possible.
A kitchen also allows you to make staples, like sauces, that can be used in several dishes. Sarah Alper says, "I like to make peanut sauce with some combination of peanut butter, sugar, lemon or lime juice, vinegar, soy sauce (or salt), and anything else that sounds good and is available. Then I add water to make the sauce the consistency I want. It makes almost anything more interesting and substantial: pasta, apple slices, raw or steamed vegetables, rice, tofu, etc."
What’s your favorite dish?
- "Noodles or rice with Thai peanut sauce and tofu and fresh veggies"
- -Claire Askew, Lewis and Clark College (former scholarship winner)
- "Spaghetti. I add…organic spinach and sprinkle vegan Parmesan cheese on top!"
- -Yasmin Radbod, UMBC (VRG intern)
- "Chicken" A La King"
- -Sasha Clark, University of Mary Washington
- "Homemade pizza"
- -Sarah Alper, Smith College
- "Grilled veggie pizza"
- -Mekenzie Lewis, Eastern Illinois University
- "Refried bean dip with a good salsa!"
- -Stefanie Mavronis, UMBCEats Vegan Blogger
- "Vegan Pad Thai"
- -Nina Gonzales, Seton Hill University (former scholarship winner)
- "Seitan piccata"
- -Rachel Horner, Towson University
- "Guacamole with raw veggie chips"
- -Danny Neilson, Columia University
- "Strawberry shortcake cupcakes!"
- -Alisha Utter UCSD
Thank you to Sarah Alper, Claire Askew, Elizabeth Behrens, Sasha Clark, Nina Gonzalez, Rachel Horner, Mekenzie Lewis, Stefanie Mavronis, Emily Maybee, Danny Neilson, Jennie Plasterer, Yasmin Radbod, and Alisha Utter for their time in being interviewed for this article.
This article was written by Lindsey Siferd and Jessica Friend, who were both summer interns for the VRG. If you are interested in becoming an intern with the VRG, please visit http://www.vrg.org/student/index.php for more information.